* POSTER'S NOTE: Though John Calvin was part of
the necessary Protestant Reformation who fled for his life from the oppressive, and yes, cultic practices of the Catholic Church in France during the early
1500's, what he created in Geneva, Switzerland was no less than another legalistic CULT that dictated, in a microcosm way, every aspect of it's
inhabitant's lives. No less than what the Pharisees of Chris's day did in Judea. Burdened humans with man made laws! Exactly what Christ spoke against!
1"Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage."
8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- 9not by works, so that no one can boast.
Sixteenth-century portrait of John Calvin by an unknown artist. From the collection of the Bibliothèque de Genève (Library of Geneva)
John Calvin (Middle French: Jean Cauvin; 10 July 1509 - 27 May 1564) was an influential French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism. Originally trained as a humanist lawyer, he broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530. After religious tensions provoked a violent uprising against Protestants in France, Calvin fled to Basel, Switzerland, where in 1536 he published the first edition of his seminal work Institutes of the Christian Religion.
In that year, Calvin was invited by William Farel to help reform the church in Geneva. The city council resisted the implementation of Calvin and Farel's ideas, and both men were expelled. At the invitation of Martin Bucer, Calvin proceeded to Strasbourg, where he became the minister of a church of French refugees. He continued to support the reform movement in Geneva, and was eventually invited back to lead its church. Following his return, he introduced new forms of church government and liturgy, despite the opposition of several powerful families in the city who tried to curb his authority. During this period, Michael Servetus, a Spaniard known for his heretical views, arrived in Geneva. He was denounced by Calvin and executed by the city council. Following an influx of supportive refugees and new elections to the city council, Calvin's opponents were forced out. Calvin spent his final years promoting the Reformation both in Geneva and throughout Europe.
Calvin was a tireless polemic
and apologetic writer who generated much controversy. He also exchanged cordial and supportive letters with many
reformers including Philipp
Melanchthon and Heinrich Bullinger. In addition to the Institutes, he wrote commentaries on most books of the
Bible as well as theological treatises
documents, and he regularly gave sermons throughout the week in Geneva.
Calvin was influenced by the Augustinian tradition, which led him to expound the doctrine of predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation.
Calvin's writing and preachings provided the seeds for the branch of theology that bears his name. The Presbyterian and
other Reformed churches, which look to Calvin as a chief expositor of their beliefs, have spread throughout the world. Calvin's thought exerted considerable influence
over major religious figures and entire religious movements, such as Puritanism, and some have argued that his ideas have contributed to the rise of capitalism, individualism, and representative democracy in the West.
Early life (1509-1535)
Calvin was born Jean Cauvin on 10 July 1509 in the town of Noyon in the Picardy region of
France. He was the second of three sons who survived infancy. His father, Gérard Cauvin,
had a prosperous career as the cathedral notary and registrar to the ecclesiastical court. His mother, Jeanne le Franc, was the daughter of an innkeeper from Cambrai. She died a few
years after Calvin's birth. Gérard intended his three
sons-Charles, Jean, and Antoine-for the priesthood. Jean was particularly precocious; by the age of twelve, he was employed by the bishop as a clerk and received the tonsure, cutting his hair to symbolise his dedication to the Church. He also won the patronage of an influential family, the Montmors. Through
their assistance, Calvin was able to attend the Collège de la Marche in Paris, where he learned Latin from one of its greatest teachers, Mathurin Cordier. Once he completed the course, he entered the Collège de Montaigu as a philosophy student.
In 1525 or 1526, Gérard withdrew his son from Montaigu and enrolled him in the University of Orléans to study law. According to contemporary biographers Theodore Beza and Nicolas Colladon, Gérard believed his son would earn more money as a lawyer than as a priest. After a few years of quiet study, Calvin entered the University of Bourges in 1529. He was intrigued by the presence of Andreas Alciati, a humanist lawyer. Humanism was a European intellectual movement which stressed classical studies. During his eighteen-month stay in Bourges Calvin learned Greek, a necessity for studying the New Testament.
Sometime during this period Calvin experienced a sudden religious conversion. Not much is known of the surrounding circumstances, but he made one reference to it in the preface to his Commentary on the Book of Psalms: "God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, yet I pursued them with less ardour." Scholars have argued about the precise interpretation of this statement, but it is agreed that his conversion corresponded with his break from the Roman Catholic Church.
By 1532, he received his licentiate in law and published his first book, a commentary on Seneca's De Clementia. After uneventful trips to Orléans and his hometown of Noyon, Calvin returned to Paris in October 1533. During this time, tensions rose at the Collège Royal (later to become the Collège de France) between the humanists/reformers and the conservative senior faculty members. One of the reformers, Nicolas Cop, was rector of the university. On 1 November 1533 he devoted his inaugural address to the need for reform and renewal in the Catholic Church. The address provoked a strong reaction from the faculty, who denounced it as heretical, forcing Cop to flee to Basel. Calvin, a close friend of Cop, was implicated in the offense, and for the next year he was forced into hiding. He remained on the move, sheltering with his friend Louis du Tillet in Angoulême and taking refuge in Noyon and Orléans. He was finally forced to flee France during the Affair of the Placards in mid-October 1534. In that incident, unknown reformers had posted placards in various cities attacking the Catholic Mass, which provoked a violent backlash against Protestants. In January 1535, Calvin joined Cop in Basel, a city under the influence of the reformer Johannes Oecolampadius.
Reform work commences (1536-1538)
In March 1536, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutio Christianae Religionis or Institutes of the Christian Religion. The work was an apologia or defense of his faith and a statement of the doctrinal position of the reformers. He also intended it to serve as an elementary instruction book for anyone interested in the Christian religion. The book was the first expression of his theology. Calvin updated the work and published new editions throughout his life. Shortly after its publication, he left Basel for Ferrara, Italy, where he briefly served as secretary to Princess Renée of France. By June he was back in Paris with his brother Antoine, who was resolving their father's affairs. Following the Edict of Coucy, which gave a limited six-month period for heretics to reconcile with the Catholic faith, Calvin decided that there was no future for him in France. In August he set off for Strasbourg, a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire and a refuge for reformers. Due to military manoeuvres of imperial and French forces, he was forced to make a detour to the south, bringing him to Geneva. Calvin had only intended to stay a single night, but William Farel, a fellow French reformer residing in the city, implored Calvin to stay and assist him in reforming the church there. Calvin quietly accepted without any preconditions on his tasks or duties. The office to which he was initially assigned is unknown. He was eventually given the title of "reader", which most likely meant that he could give expository lectures on the Bible. Sometime in 1537 he was selected to be a "pastor", although he never received any pastoral consecration. For the first time, the lawyer-theologian took up pastoral duties such as baptisms, weddings, and church services.
Throughout the fall of 1536, Farel drafted a confession of faith while Calvin wrote separate articles on reorganising the church in Geneva. On 16 January 1537, Farel and Calvin presented their Articles concernant l'organisation de l'église et du culte à Genève (Articles on the Organisation of the Church and its Worship at Geneva) to the city council. The document described the manner and frequency of their celebrations of the Eucharist, the reason for and the method of excommunication, the requirement to subscribe to the confession of faith, the use of congregational singing in the liturgy, and the revision of marriage laws. The council accepted the document on the same day.
Throughout the year, however, Calvin and Farel's reputation with the council began to suffer. The council was reluctant to enforce the subscription requirement as only a few citizens had subscribed to their confession of faith. On 26 November, the two ministers heatedly debated the council over the issue. Furthermore, France was taking an interest in forming an alliance with Geneva and as the two ministers were Frenchmen, councillors began to question their loyalty. Finally, a major ecclesiastical-political quarrel developed when Bern, Geneva's ally in the reformation of the Swiss churches, proposed to introduce uniformity in the church ceremonies. One proposal required the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist. The two ministers were unwilling to follow Bern's lead and delayed the use of such bread until a synod in Zürich could be convened to make the final decision. The council ordered Calvin and Farel to use unleavened bread for the Easter Eucharist; in protest, the ministers did not administer communion during the Easter service. This caused a riot during the service and the next day, the council told the ministers to leave Geneva.
Farel and Calvin went to Bern and Zürich to plead their case. The synod in Zürich placed most of the blame on Calvin for not being sympathetic enough toward the people of Geneva. However, it asked Bern to mediate with the aim of restoring the ministers. The Geneva council refused to readmit the two men, who took refuge in Basel. Subsequently Farel received an invitation to lead the church in Neuchâtel. Calvin was invited to lead a church of French refugees in Strasbourg by that city's leading reformers, Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito. Initially Calvin refused because Farel was not included in the invitation, but when Bucer appealed to him Calvin relented. By September, Calvin had taken up his new position in Strasbourg, fully expecting that this time it would be permanent; a few months later, he applied for and was granted citizenship of the city.
Minister in Strasbourg (1538-1541)
During his time in Strasbourg, Calvin was not affected to one particular church, but held his office successively in the Saint-Nicolas Church, the Sainte-Madeleine Church and the former Dominican Church, renamed the Temple Neuf. (All of these churches still exist today, but none of them in the architectural state of Calvin's days.) Calvin ministered to four or five hundred members in his church. He preached or lectured every day with two sermons on Sunday. Communion was celebrated monthly and congregational psalms singing was encouraged. He also worked on the second edition of the Institutes. Although the first edition sold out within a year, Calvin was dissatisfied with its structure as a catechism, a primer for young Christians. For the second edition, published in 1539, Calvin dropped this format in favour of systematically presenting the main doctrines from scripture. In the process, the book was enlarged from six chapters to seventeen. He concurrently worked on another book, the Commentary on Romans, which was published in March 1540. The book was a model for his later commentaries: it included his own Latin translation from the Greek rather than the Latin Vulgate, an exegesis, and an exposition. In the dedicatory letter, Calvin praised the work of his predecessors Philipp Melanchthon, Heinrich Bullinger, and Martin Bucer, but he also took care to state that his own work was distinct and courteously criticised some of the shortcomings of these three major reformers.
Calvin's friends soon began to urge him to marry. Calvin took a prosaic view on the issue of his own marriage, writing to one correspondent, "I, who have the air of being so hostile to celibacy, I am still not married and do not know whether I will ever be. If I take a wife it will be because, being better freed from numerous worries, I can devote myself to the Lord." Several candidates were presented to him including one young woman from a noble family. Reluctantly, Calvin agreed to the marriage, on the condition that she would learn French. Although a wedding date was planned for sometime in March 1540, he remained reluctant and the wedding never took place. He later wrote that he would never think of marrying her, "unless the Lord had entirely bereft me of my wits". Instead, in August of that year, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow who had two children from her first marriage.
Meanwhile Geneva had begun to reconsider its expulsion of Calvin. Church attendance had dwindled and the political climate had changed; as Bern and Geneva quarreled over land, their alliance frayed. When Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto wrote a letter to the city council inviting Geneva to return to the Catholic faith, the council searched for an ecclesiastical authority to respond to him. At first Pierre Viret was consulted, but when he refused, the council asked Calvin. He agreed and his Responsio ad Sadoletum (Letter to Sadoleto), while courteous, strongly defended Geneva's position concerning reforms in the church. On 21 September 1540 the council commissioned one of its members, Ami Perrin, to find a way to recall Calvin. An embassy reached Calvin while he was at a colloquy, a conference to settle religious disputes, in Worms. His reaction to the suggestion of returning to Geneva was one of horror in which he wrote, "Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross on which I had to perish daily a thousand times over."
Despite his hesitation, he also wrote that he was prepared to follow the Lord's calling. A plan was drawn up in which Viret would be appointed to take temporary charge in Geneva for six months while Bucer and Calvin would visit the city to determine the next steps. However, the city council pressed for the immediate appointment of Calvin in Geneva. By summer 1541, it was finally decided that Strasbourg would lend Calvin to Geneva for six months. Calvin returned on 13 September 1541 and quite unlike his first entry into Geneva as a refugee, he arrived with an official escort and a wagon for his family.
Reform in Geneva (1541-1549)
In supporting Calvin's proposals for reforms, the council of Geneva passed the Ordonnances ecclésiastiques (Ecclesiastical Ordinances) on 20 November 1541. The ordinances defined four orders of ministerial function: pastors to preach and to administer the sacraments; doctors to instruct believers in the faith; elders to provide discipline; and deacons to care for the poor and needy. They also called for the creation of the Consistoire (Consistory), an ecclesiastical court composed of the lay elders and the ministers. The city government retained the power to summon persons before the court and the Consistory could judge only ecclesiastical matters having no civil jurisdiction. Originally, the court had the power to mete out sentences, with excommunication as its most severe penalty. However, the government contested this power and on 19 March 1543 the council decided that all sentencing would be carried out by the government.
In 1542, Calvin adapted a service book used in Strasbourg, publishing La Forme des Prières et Chants Ecclésiastiques (The Form of Prayers and Church Hymns). Calvin recognised the power of music and he intended that it be used to support scripture readings. The original Strasbourg psalter contained twelve psalms by Clément Marot and Calvin added several more hymns of his own composition in the Geneva version. At the end of 1542, Marot became a refugee in Geneva and contributed nineteen more psalms. Louis Bourgeois, also a refugee, lived and taught music in Geneva for sixteen years and Calvin took the opportunity to add his hymns, the most famous being the Old Hundredth.
In the same year of 1542, Calvin published Catéchisme de l'Eglise de Genève (Catechism of the Church of Geneva), which was inspired by Bucer's Kurze Schrifftliche Erklärung of 1534. Calvin had written an earlier catechism during his first stay in Geneva which was largely based on Martin Luther's Large Catechism. The first version was arranged pedagogically, describing Law, Faith, and Prayer. The 1542 version was rearranged for theological reasons, covering Faith first, then Law and Prayer.
During his ministry in Geneva, Calvin preached over two thousand sermons. Initially he preached twice on Sunday and three times during the week. This proved to be too heavy a burden and late in 1542 the council allowed him to preach only once on Sunday. However, in October 1549, he was again required to preach twice on Sundays and, in addition, every weekday of alternate weeks. His sermons lasted more than an hour and he did not use notes. An occasional secretary tried to record his sermons, but very little of his preaching was preserved before 1549. In that year, professional scribe Denis Raguenier, who had learned or developed a system of shorthand, was assigned to record all of Calvin's sermons. An analysis of his sermons by T. H. L. Parker suggests that Calvin was a consistent preacher and his style changed very little over the years.
Very little is known about Calvin's personal life in Geneva. His house and furniture were owned by the council. The house was big enough to accommodate his family as well as Antoine's family and some servants. On 28 July 1542, Idelette gave birth to a son, Jacques, but he was born prematurely and survived only briefly. Idelette fell ill in 1545 and died on 29 March 1549. Calvin never married again. He expressed his sorrow in a letter to Viret:
I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life, of one who, if it has been so ordained, would willingly have shared not only my poverty but also my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.
Throughout the rest of his life in Geneva, he maintained several friendships from his early years including Montmor, Cordier, Cop, Farel, Melanchthon, and Bullinger.
Discipline and opposition (1546-1553)
Calvin encountered bitter opposition to his work in Geneva. Around 1546, the uncoordinated forces coalesced into an identifiable group whom he referred to as the libertines. According to Calvin, these were people who felt that after being liberated through grace, they were exempted from both ecclesiastical and civil law. The group consisted of wealthy, politically powerful, and interrelated families of Geneva. At the end of January 1546, Pierre Ameaux, a maker of playing cards who had already been in trouble with the Consistory, attacked Calvin by calling him a "Picard", an epithet denoting anti-French sentiment, and accused him of false doctrine. Ameaux was punished by the council and forced to make expiation by parading through the city and begging God for forgiveness. A few months later Ami Perrin, the man who had brought Calvin to Geneva, moved into open opposition. Perrin had married Françoise Favre, daughter of François Favre, a well-established Genevan merchant. Both Perrin's wife and father-in-law had previous quarrels with the Consistory. The court noted that many of Geneva's notables, including Perrin, had breached a law against dancing. Initially, Perrin ignored the court when he was summoned, but after receiving a letter from Calvin, he acquiesced and appeared quietly before the Consistory.
By 1547, opposition to Calvin and other French refugee ministers had grown to constitute the majority of the syndics, the civil magistrates of Geneva. On 27 June an unsigned threatening letter in Genevan dialect was found at the pulpit of St. Pierre Cathedral where Calvin preached. Suspecting a plot against both the church and the state, the council appointed a commission to investigate. Jacques Gruet, a Genevan member of Favre's group, was arrested and incriminating evidence was found when his house was searched. Under torture, he confessed to several crimes including writing the letter left in the pulpit which threatened God and his ambassadors and endeavouring to subvert church order. The civil court condemned him to death and with Calvin's consent, he was beheaded on 26 July.
The libertines continued their opposition, taking opportunities to stir up discontent, to insult the ministers, and to defy the authority of the Consistory. The council straddled both sides of the conflict, alternately admonishing and upholding Calvin. When Perrin was elected first syndic in February 1552, Calvin's authority appeared to be at its lowest point. After some losses before the council, Calvin believed he was defeated; on 24 July 1553 he asked the council to allow him to resign. Although the libertines controlled the council, his request was refused. The opposition realised that they could curb Calvin's authority, but they did not have enough power to banish him.
Michael Servetus (1553)
The turning point in Calvin's fortunes occurred when Michael Servetus, a fugitive from ecclesiastical authorities, appeared in Geneva on 13 August 1553. Servetus was a Spaniard who boldly criticised Christian dogma. In particular, he rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. In July 1530 he disputed with Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel and was eventually expelled. He went to Strasbourg where he published a pamphlet against the Trinity. Bucer publicly refuted it and asked Servetus to leave. After returning to Basel, Servetus published Dialogorum de Trinitate libri duo (Two Books of Dialogues on the Trinity) which caused a sensation among Reformers and Catholics alike. The Inquisition in Spain ordered his arrest.
Calvin and Servetus were first brought into contact in 1546 through a common acquaintance, Jean Frellon of Lyon. They exchanged letters debating doctrine until Calvin lost patience and refused to respond; by this time Servetus had written around thirty letters to Calvin. Calvin was particularly outraged when Servetus sent him a copy of the Institutes of the Christian Religion heavily annotated with arguments pointing to errors in the book. When Servetus mentioned that he would come to Geneva if Calvin agreed, Calvin wrote a letter to Farel on 13 February 1547 noting that if Servetus were to come, he would not assure him safe conduct: "for if he came, as far as my authority goes, I would not let him leave alive."
In 1553 when the inquisitor-general of France learned that Servetus was hiding in Vienne under an assumed name, he contacted Cardinal François de Tournon, the secretary of the archbishop of Lyon, to take up the matter. Servetus was arrested and taken in for questioning. His letters to Calvin were presented as evidence of heresy, but he denied having written them. He managed to escape from prison, and the Catholic authorities sentenced him in absentia to death by slow burning.
On his way to Italy, Servetus stopped in Geneva for unknown reasons and attended one of Calvin's sermons in St Pierre. Calvin had him arrested, and Calvin's secretary Nicholas de la Fontaine composed a list of accusations that was submitted before the court. The prosecutor was Philibert Berthelier, a member of a libertine family and son of a famous Geneva patriot, and the sessions were led by Pierre Tissot, Perrin's brother-in-law. The libertines allowed the trial to drag on in an attempt to harass Calvin. The difficulty in using Servetus as a weapon against Calvin was that the heretical reputation of Servetus was widespread and most of the cities in Europe were observing and awaiting the outcome of the trial. This posed a dilemma for the libertines, so on 21 August the council decided to write to other Swiss churches for their opinions, thus mitigating their own responsibility for the final decision. While waiting for the responses, the council also asked Servetus if he preferred to be judged in Vienne or in Geneva. He begged to stay in Geneva. On 20 October the replies from Zürich, Basel, Bern, and Schaffhausen were read and the council condemned Servetus as a heretic. The following day he was sentenced to burning at the stake, the same sentence as in Vienne. Calvin and other ministers asked that he be beheaded instead of burnt. This plea was refused and on 27 October, Servetus was burnt alive-atop a pyre of his own books-at the Plateau of Champel at the edge of Geneva.
Securing the Reformation (1553-1555)
After the death of Servetus, Calvin was acclaimed a defender of Christianity, but his ultimate triumph over the libertines was still two years away. He had always insisted that the Consistory retain the power of excommunication, despite the council's past decision to take it away. During Servetus's trial, Philibert Berthelier asked the council for permission to take communion, as he had been excommunicated the previous year for insulting a minister. Calvin protested that the council did not have the legal authority to overturn Berthelier's excommunication. Unsure of how the council would rule, he hinted in a sermon on 3 September 1553 that he might be dismissed by the authorities. The council decided to re-examine the Ordonnances and on 18 September it voted in support of Calvin-excommunication was within the jurisdiction of the Consistory. Berthelier applied for reinstatement to another Genevan administrative assembly, the Deux Cents (Two Hundred), in November. This body reversed the council's decision and stated that the final arbiter concerning excommunication should be the council. However, the ministers continued to protest and as in the case of Servetus, the opinions of the Swiss churches were sought. The affair dragged on through 1554. Finally, on 22 January 1555, the council announced the decision of the Swiss churches: the original Ordonnances were to be kept and the Consistory was to regain its official powers.
The libertines' downfall began with the February 1555 elections. By then, many of the French refugees had been granted citizenship and with their support, Calvin's partisans elected the majority of the syndics and the councillors. The libertines plotted to make trouble and on 16 May they set off to burn down a house that was supposedly full of Frenchmen. The syndic Henri Aulbert tried to intervene, carrying with him the baton of office that symbolised his power. Perrin made the mistake of seizing the baton, thereby signifying that he was taking power, a virtual coup d'état. The insurrection was over as soon as it started when another syndic appeared and ordered Perrin to go with him to the town hall. Perrin and other leaders were forced to flee the city. With the approval of Calvin, the other plotters who remained in the city were found and executed. The opposition to Calvin's church polity came to an end.
Final years (1555-1564)
Calvin's authority was practically uncontested during his final years, and he enjoyed an international reputation as a reformer distinct from Martin Luther. Initially, Luther and Calvin had mutual respect for each other. However, a doctrinal conflict had developed between Luther and Zürich reformer Huldrych Zwingli on the interpretation of the Eucharist. Calvin's opinion on the issue forced Luther to place him in Zwingli's camp. Calvin actively participated in the polemics that were exchanged between the Lutheran and Reformed branches of the Reformation movement. At the same time, Calvin was dismayed by the lack of unity among the reformers. He took steps toward rapprochement with Bullinger by signing the Consensus Tigurinus, a concordat between the Zürich and Geneva churches. He reached out to England when Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer called for an ecumenical synod of all the evangelical churches. Calvin praised the idea, but ultimately Cranmer was unable to bring it to fruition.
Calvin's greatest contribution toward the English-speaking community was through his sheltering of Marian exiles in Geneva starting in 1555. Under the city's protection, they were able to form their own reformed church under John Knox and William Whittingham and eventually carried Calvin's ideas on doctrine and polity back to England and Scotland. However, Calvin was most interested in reforming his homeland, France. He supported the building of churches by distributing literature and providing ministers. Between 1555 and 1562, over one hundred ministers were sent to France. These efforts were funded entirely by the church in Geneva, as the city council had refused to become involved in missionary activities at the time. Henry II severely persecuted Protestants under the Edict of Chateaubriand and when the French authorities complained about the missionary activities, Geneva was able to disclaim responsibility.
Within Geneva, Calvin's main concern was the creation of a collège, an institute for the education of children. A site for the school was selected on 25 March 1558 and it opened the following year on 5 June 1559. Although the school was a single institution, it was divided into two parts: a grammar school called the collège or schola privata and an advanced school called the académie or schola publica. Calvin tried to recruit two professors for the institute, Mathurin Cordier, his old friend and Latin scholar who was now based in Lausanne, and Emmanuel Tremellius, the Regius professor of Hebrew in Cambridge. Neither were available, but he succeeded in obtaining Theodore Beza as rector. Within five years there were 1,200 students in the grammar school and 300 in the advanced school. The collège eventually became the Collège Calvin, one of the college preparatory schools of Geneva, while the académie became the University of Geneva.
In autumn 1558, Calvin became ill with a fever. Since he was afraid that he might die before completing the final revision of the Institutes, he forced himself to work. The final edition was greatly expanded to the extent that Calvin referred to it as a new work. The expansion from twenty-one chapters of the previous edition to eighty was due to the extended treatment of existing material rather than the addition of new topics. Shortly after he recovered, he strained his voice while preaching, which brought on a violent fit of coughing. He burst a blood-vessel in his lungs, and his health steadily declined. He preached his final sermon in St. Pierre on 6 February 1564. On 25 April, he made his will, in which he left small sums to his family and to the collège. A few days later, the ministers of the church came to visit him, and he bid his final farewell, which was recorded in Discours d'adieu aux ministres. He recounted his life in Geneva, sometimes recalling bitterly some of the hardships he had suffered. Calvin died on 27 May 1564 aged 54. At first his body was laid in state, but since so many people came to see it, the reformers were afraid that they would be accused of fostering a new saint's cult. On the following day, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the Cimetière de Plainpalais. While the exact location of the grave is unknown, a stone was added in the 19th century to mark a grave traditionally thought to be Calvin's.
Calvin develops his theology in his biblical commentaries as well as his sermons and treatises, but the most concise expression of his views is found in his magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. He intended that the book be used as a summary of his views on Christian theology and that it be read in conjunction with his commentaries. The various editions of that work span nearly his entire career as a reformer, and the successive revisions of the book show that his theology changed very little from his youth to his death. The first edition from 1536 consisted of only six chapters. The second edition, published in 1539, was three times as long because he added chapters on subjects that appear in Melanchthon's Loci Communes. In 1543, he again added new material and expanded a chapter on the Apostles' Creed. The final edition of the Institutes appeared in 1559. By then, the work consisted of four books of eighty chapters, and each book was named after statements from the creed: Book 1 on God the Creator, Book 2 on the Redeemer in Christ, Book 3 on receiving the Grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit, and Book 4 on the Society of Christ or the Church.
The first statement in the Institutes acknowledges its central theme. It states that the sum of human wisdom consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. Calvin argues that the knowledge of God is not inherent in humanity nor can it be discovered by observing this world. The only way to obtain it is to study scripture. Calvin writes, "For anyone to arrive at God the Creator he needs Scripture as his Guide and Teacher." He does not try to prove the authority of scripture but rather describes it as autopiston or self-authenticating. He defends the trinitarian view of God and, in a strong polemical stand against the Catholic Church, argues that images of God lead to idolatry. At the end of the first book, he offers his views on providence, writing, "By his Power God cherishes and guards the World which he made and by his Providence rules its individual Parts." Humans are unable to fully comprehend why God performs any particular action, but whatever good or evil people may practise, their efforts always result in the execution of God's will and judgments.
The second book includes several essays on the original sin and the fall of man, which directly refer to Augustine, who developed these doctrines. He often cited the Church Fathers in order to defend the reformed cause against the charge that the reformers were creating new theology. In Calvin's view, sin began with the fall of Adam and propagated to all of humanity. The domination of sin is complete to the point that people are driven to evil. Thus fallen humanity is in need of the redemption that can be found in Christ. But before Calvin expounded on this doctrine, he described the special situation of the Jews who lived during the time of the Old Testament. God made a covenant with Abraham and the substance of the promise was the coming of Christ. Hence, the old covenant was not in opposition to Christ, but was rather a continuation of God's promise. Calvin then describes the New Covenant using the passage from the Apostles' Creed that describes Christ's suffering under Pontius Pilate and his return to judge the living and the dead. For Calvin, the whole course of Christ's obedience to the Father removed the discord between humanity and God.
In the third book, Calvin describes how the spiritual union of Christ and humanity is achieved. He first defines faith as the firm and certain knowledge of God in Christ. The immediate effects of faith are repentance and the remission of sin. This is followed by spiritual regeneration, which returns the believer to the state of holiness before Adam's transgression. However, complete perfection is unattainable in this life, and the believer should expect a continual struggle against sin. Several chapters are then devoted to the subject of justification by faith alone. He defined justification as "the acceptance by which God regards us as righteous whom he has received into grace." In this definition, it is clear that it is God who initiates and carries through the action and that people play no role; God is completely sovereign in salvation. Near the end of the book, Calvin describes and defends the doctrine of predestination, a doctrine advanced by Augustine in opposition to the teachings of Pelagius. Fellow theologians who followed the Augustinian tradition on this point included Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther. The principle, in Calvin's words, is that "God adopts some to the hope of life and adjudges others to eternal death."
The final book describes what he considers to be the true Church and its ministry, authority, and sacraments. He denied the papal claim to primacy and the accusation that the reformers were schismatic. For Calvin, the Church was defined as the body of believers who placed Christ at its head. By definition, there was only one "catholic" or "universal" Church. Hence, he argued that the reformers, "had to leave them in order that we might come to Christ." The ministers of the Church are described from a passage from Ephesians, and they consisted of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and doctors. Calvin regarded the first three offices as temporary, limited in their existence to the time of the New Testament. The latter two offices were established in the church in Geneva. Although Calvin respected the work of the ecumenical councils, he considered them to be subject to God's Word, the teaching of scripture. He also believed that the civil and church authorities were separate and should not interfere with each other.
Calvin defined a sacrament as an earthly sign associated with a promise from God. He accepted only two sacraments as valid under the new covenant: baptism and the Lord's Supper (in opposition to the Catholic acceptance of seven sacraments). He completely rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the treatment of the Supper as a sacrifice. He also could not accept the Lutheran doctrine of sacramental union in which Christ was "in, with and under" the elements. His own view was close to Zwingli's symbolic view, but it was not identical. Rather than holding a purely symbolic view, Calvin noted that with the participation of the Holy Spirit, faith was nourished and strengthened by the sacrament. In his words, the Eucharistic rite was "a secret too sublime for my mind to understand or words to express. I experience it rather than understand it."
Calvin's theology was not without controversy. Pierre Caroli, a Protestant minister in Lausanne accused Calvin as well as Viret and Farel of Arianism in 1536. Calvin was forced to defend his beliefs on the Trinity in Confessio de Trinitate propter calumnias P. Caroli. In 1551 Jérôme-Hermès Bolsec, a physician in Geneva, attacked Calvin's doctrine of predestination and accused him of making God the author of sin. Bolsec was banished from the city, and after Calvin's death, he wrote a biography which severely maligned Calvin's character. In the following year, Joachim Westphal, a Gnesio-Lutheran pastor in Hamburg, condemned Calvin and Zwingli as heretics in denying the Eucharistic doctrine of the union of Christ's body with the elements. Calvin's Defensio sanae et orthodoxae doctrinae de sacramentis (A Defence of the Sober and Orthodox Doctrine of the Sacrament) was his response in 1555. Following the execution of Servetus, a close associate of Calvin, Sebastian Castellio broke with him on the issue of the maltreatment of heretics. In Castellio's Treatise on Heretics (1554), he argued for a focus on Christ's moral teachings in place of the vanity of theology, and he afterward developed a theory of tolerance based on biblical principles.
Calvin's first published work was a commentary of Seneca the Younger's De Clementia. Published at his own expense in 1532, it showed that he was a humanist in the tradition of Erasmus with a thorough understanding of classical scholarship. His first theological work, the Psychopannychia, attempted to refute the doctrine of soul sleep as promulgated by the Anabaptists. Calvin probably wrote it during the period following Cop's speech, but it was not published until 1542 in Strasbourg.
Calvin produced commentaries on most of the books of the Bible. His first commentary on Romans was published in 1540, and he planned to write commentaries on the entire New Testament. Six years passed before he wrote his second, a commentary on I Corinthians, but after that he devoted more attention to reaching his goal. Within four years he had published commentaries on all the Pauline epistles, and he also revised the commentary on Romans. He then turned his attention to the general epistles, dedicating them to Edward VI of England. By 1555 he had completed his work on the New Testament, finishing with the Acts and the Gospels (he omitted only the brief second and third Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation). For the Old Testament, he wrote commentaries on Isaiah, the books of the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and Joshua. The material for the commentaries often originated from lectures to students and ministers that he reworked for publication. However, from 1557 onwards, he could not find the time to continue this method, and he gave permission for his lectures to be published from stenographers' notes. These Praelectiones covered the minor prophets, Daniel, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and part of Ezekiel.
Calvin also wrote many letters and treatises. Following the Responsio ad Sadoletum, Calvin wrote an open letter at the request of Bucer to Charles V in 1543, Supplex exhortatio ad Caesarem, defending the reformed faith. This was followed by an open letter to the pope (Admonitio paterna Pauli III) in 1544, in which Calvin admonished Paul III for depriving the reformers of any prospect of rapprochement. The pope proceeded to open the Council of Trent, which resulted in decrees against the reformers. Calvin refuted the decrees by producing the Acta synodi Tridentinae cum Antidoto in 1547. When Charles tried to find a compromise solution with the Augsburg Interim, Bucer and Bullinger urged Calvin to respond. He wrote the treatise, Vera christiannae pacificationis et Ecclesiae reformandae ratio in 1549, in which he described the doctrines that should be upheld, including justification by faith.
Calvin provided many of the foundational documents for reformed churches, including documents on the catechism, the liturgy, and church governance. He also produced several confessions of faith in order to unite the churches. In 1559, he drafted the French confession of faith, the Gallic Confession, and the synod in Paris accepted it with few changes. The Belgic Confession of 1561, a Dutch confession of faith, was partly based on the Gallic Confession.
After the deaths of Calvin and his successor, Beza, the Geneva city council gradually gained control over areas of life that were previously in the ecclesiastical domain. Increasing secularisation was accompanied by the decline of the church. Even the Geneva académie was eclipsed by universities in Leiden and Heidelberg, which became the new strongholds of Calvin's ideas, first identified as "Calvinism" by Joachim Westphal in 1552. By 1585, Geneva, once the wellspring of the reform movement, had become merely its symbol. However, Calvin had always warned against describing him as an "idol" and Geneva as a new "Jerusalem". He encouraged people to adapt to the environments in which they found themselves. Even during his polemical exchange with Westphal, he advised a group of French-speaking refugees, who had settled in Wesel, Germany, to integrate with the local Lutheran churches. Despite his differences with the Lutherans, he did not deny that they were members of the true Church. Calvin's recognition of the need to adapt to local conditions became an important characteristic of the reformation movement as it spread across Europe.
Due to Calvin's missionary work in France, his programme of reform eventually reached the French-speaking provinces of the Netherlands. Calvinism was adopted in the Palatinate under Frederick III, which led to the formulation of the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563. This and the Belgic Confession were adopted as confessional standards in the first synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1571. Leading divines, either Calvinist or those sympathetic to Calvinism, settled in England (Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr, and Jan Laski) and Scotland (John Knox). During the English Civil War, the Calvinistic Puritans produced the Westminster Confession, which became the confessional standard for Presbyterians in the English-speaking world. Having established itself in Europe, the movement continued to spread to other parts of the world including North America, South Africa, and Korea. Calvin did not live to see the foundation of his work grow into an international movement; but his death allowed his ideas to break out of their city of origin, to succeed far beyond their borders, and to establish their own distinct character.
Calvin's legacy in modern times has produced a variety of opinions. Certainly the execution of Servetus has left a negative view
of Calvin. Voltaire mentions the
event in his Poème sur la loi naturelle (Poem on Natural Law, 1756) and Dialogues chrétiens (Christian Dialogues, 1760). For Voltaire,
Calvin's philosophy had not produced any improvement over the intolerance presented in previous revealed religions. Calvin is discussed in Max Weber's classic work The Protestant Ethic
and the Spirit of Capitalism in which he argues that Calvin's teachings provided ideological impetus for the development of capitalism. John Stuart Mill saw Calvin's belief in the value of
restraining one's self-will as damaging to the development of the individual, though. Some political historians, such as George Bancroft, have recognised
his contributions to the development of representative democracy in general and the American system of government in